“And” not “But” – As human beings, we tend to connect things and create narratives. Sometimes this is really helpful for us (“I know that I’m not very good at chess right now, but I just started playing!” or “I didn’t like the last season of Doctor Who, but I loved the previous two seasons!”) but sometimes it hurts us. We need to be more strategic in what topics we link, or we risk harming our students. It amazes me how often I hear parents, teachers, and mental health professionals using this common mistake: “Sally is great at math, but she really struggles in gym class.”
You tell me: are Sally’s problems in gym related at all to her performance in math? Of course not! Yet, by linking them in our language, we are telling Sally (and ourselves) that her stellar qualities are somehow undone or undercut by her difficulties in another area. When we speak to kids in this manner, we show them that their good qualities are contingent on their weaknesses, which serves to erode self-confidence and pathologize areas of less skill.
Now let’s look at that same sentence, but we will replace one word: “Sally is great at math and she really struggles in gym class.” Both parts of that sentence are truthful. Both parts of that sentence describe Sally. What matters here is that we are treating both parts as equally valid rather than contingent on one another. By treating them equally, we don’t pathologize the weakness. This type of language helps to normalize areas in need of development by treating Sally as a whole, complex person.
Try this technique at home: Would you say, “I love my son but he’s so messy!”? I hope not! Your love of your children isn’t contingent on anything. (We hope). You would say, “I love my son and he’s so messy.” (Cue thousands of parents nodding). You can model this language for teachers as well: Rather than saying, “Manuel is a great artist but he’s so disorganized!” try modeling “Manuel is a great artist and he’s so disorganized.” One does not undo the other.